Under the shadow of new, strict social distancing rules, House lawmakers will take up a historic $2 trillion rescue package on Friday to stem the economic crisis triggered by the coronavirus pandemic.
The plans come the day after the U.S. overtook China to lead the world in the number of coronavirus cases, which now total more than 85,000. More than 280 have died, according to John Hopkins University.
On Thursday, House leaders urged swift approval of the 880-page measure, which includes direct payments to Americans, an aggressive expansion of unemployment insurance, billions in business loans and aid to hospitals.
"This is an emergency, a challenge to the conscience as well as the budget of our country, and every dollar that we spend is an investment in the lives and the livelihood of the American people," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also lauded the plan.
"This is not another day in Congress, this is a time when we have to come together to deliver results," McCarthy, R-Calif., said.
In a vote of 96 to 0, the Senate approved the bill late Wednesday, capping days of tough negotiations. The four senators who were not present for the vote were all self-isolating connection with coronavirus concerns or other illness.
House tries for quick approval
In the House, two members have tested positive for the illness and more than a dozen others remain in quarantines. As a result, House lawmakers hope to approve the measure on Friday with a smaller share of its more than 430 members and by a quick voice vote — a tall order for the chamber.
Any lawmaker could derail the move by asking for a roll call vote or a quorum of members, which would require 216 members to be present. That could extend the effort to several hours or even into Saturday.
The House will operate under new social distancing requirements when it convenes at 9 a.m. Members are asked to use hand sanitizer and enter separately through different doors. If there is a roll call vote, members must enter the chamber in preassigned groups of 30.
Also, some of the chamber's microphones and furniture will be rearranged.
"The floor will look different," McCarthy said. "Those who are managing the bill will be further away. Members can't sit next to each other."
And for the first time, C-SPAN will reserve airtime to post videos from lawmakers sharing support or opposition to the bill. The move came following a request from House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.
The bill, which marks the largest rescue package in American history, is a major bipartisan victory for Congress. In the final days, it was the result arduous negotiations between Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had introduced the legislation earlier this week, setting off a new wave of talks with Schumer, Mnuchin, Pelosi and McCarthy.
President Trump late Thursday urged House approval for the plan, congratulating the Senate for its efforts.
"I'm profoundly grateful that both parties came together to provide relief for American workers and families in this hour of need," Trump told reporters Thursday evening. "The House of Republicans must now pass this bill, hopefully without delay. I think it's got tremendous support."
Among the key provisions in the bill:
- The plan includes $300 billion in direct payments to Americans of $1,200 or less, per person, depending on income level. Families could also receive payments of $500 per child.
- It also includes $260 billion to aggressively scale up the unemployment insurance program, expanding coverage to four months and raise the weekly benefit by $600. It would also cover non-traditional workers, including the self-employed, freelancers and those working in the gig economy.
- Another large share of the measure includes an estimated $500 billion in loans and other money for major industries, such as airlines. That provision comes with strings attached, banning use of the the funds towards stock buybacks, CEO pay boosts and other requirements.
- It also provides $100 billion to hospitals responding to the coronavirus to boost equipment and treatment
"We need more"
Once the House approves the measure, it will join the Senate in an extended recess as a result of the pandemic. But some lawmakers say their work is not done: They'll now weigh the potential for a fourth rescue bill.
Democrats have been clear new legislation is needed, but Republicans have been less committal. The bill before the House marks the third congressional measure this month addressing the coronavirus crisis.
"This was a big, strong step, but we need more," Pelosi said, later adding, "there are so many things we didn't get in any of these bills yet in the way that we need to."
Pelosi said the next phase should involve negotiations among the "four corners," that is herself, McCarthy, Schumer and McConnell.
She said the House could take the lead, and the next wave of legislation should focus on worker protections, medical leave, pensions, food security and additional funding for state and local governments. For example, Washington, D.C. was not treated as a state in the latest coronavirus relief bill and will lose millions as a result.
However, McCarthy and other Republicans say they want to wait.
"I wouldn't be so quick to say you have to write something else," McCarthy said. "Let's let this bill work, just as long as we let the other two bills work as well. Whatever decision we have to make going forward, let's do it with knowledge, let's do with with experience of what's on the ground at that moment in time."